January 22, 2017 / Alongsiders / Sara Wolbrecht / 2 Corinthians 1:3-4 (NIV, The Message)
Alright friends, today, I want to talk a bit about suffering. That’s right: suffering. I know, I know – as soon as you hear this word you are eternally grateful that you came to church today. Why can’t it be awesome day?
But here’s the thing – have you ever been through a hard time in your life? Have you ever witnessed the suffering of someone else? Maybe events of this week have brought up suffering in you. Suffering, hard times – they are a part of life. And following Jesus, choosing this life of faith and love, does not give us a get-out-of-suffering free card. Instead, if anything, the life of Jesus shows us that we will suffer. Jesus invites us into a pattern of life where we enter into suffering – our own and the suffering of the world. Because suffering, entering into the darkness becomes the very place where the Light finds us. And because the Jesus story shows us: there is always hope, new life, new possibility, the resurrection of new things on the other side.
And for us, here at Salt House this January and February we’re exploring what it means to be a part of community, what it means when we show up, come together as the Force of Nature (pic) we are. And today, we explore what God does when we suffer. And so I’ll ask again the question asked at the beginning of worship: When was a time someone provided comfort for you through a hard day, a hard time, in your life? And: Is that time now? Let’s hold that, be in touch with our own stories of suffering and comfort as we dive into this together.
To take us where we need to go, we’re opening up the Bible, like we always do, this time to one of the letters the apostle Paul wrote, 2 Corinthians. Paul is writing his second letter to Jesus-followers in the city of Corinth. And Paul’s theme throughout this letter is the strange kind of comfort that comes through the suffering and death, and the new resurrection life, of Jesus. This is the letter where Paul explores the meaning of the cross in terms of personal suffering. So if you’re ever looking for some light reading on suffering – turn to 2 Corinthians. Though I do also mean that sincerely, for as you will see in a moment, it is ripe with good news for us in those hard times.
We have a total of two verse to look at today, but I actually want to begin with just the first verse and a half, we’ll finish it later. 2 Corinthians 1:3. Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles… (leave up)
This is verse three of the letter, the beginning, that functions to frame Paul’s understanding of who God is and who we are – and this sets the tone for the rest of the letter. So look at this statement from Paul: Who is God? How is God described? Source of comfort.
When does God comfort us? In ALL our troubles. This verse and the four verses following it, the word comfort is used 10 times in five verses. (Did you hear that? The word comfort: 10 times in five verses – all to frame this letter). But the word “comfort” here is more many-sided than “comfort.” N.T. Wright describes the many sides of this word “comfort”: It can mean “to call someone to come near,” “to make a strong appeal,” or “to treat in an inviting or friendly way.” The whole idea of the word is that one person is being with another, (now remember, this is about who God is) speaking words which change their mood and situation, giving them courage, new hope, new direction, new insights which will alter the way they face the next moment, the next day, the rest of their life.” -N.T. Wright, Paul for Everyone: 2 Corinthians. That’s what Paul means by comfort. Can you feel that? This is who God is, how God is.
I also like how the Message version says it: He comes alongside us when we go through hard times… Comes alongside us. Can you feel that image. Our God who comes alongside us. Walking with us – in a way that can alter the way we face the next moment, the rest of our lives. I love this. So this is what Paul is operating from as he then dives into the letter on suffering. And what we’re going to do is run with this picture that Paul paints. And I want to do that by sharing a story with you.
I want to tell you about a friend of mine. To share her story – with permission – one that has spoken to me over that last four years about how God came alongside her in a time of suffering. And just so you know, like all good stories there is suffering, but there is also redemption and beauty, too. Which is why I share it. I share it, too, because as we know of all good stories, we hear our own story and the story of God in them.
It is the story of my friend Jenn. Four years ago, the day after Thanksgiving, Jenn’s husband told her he was in love with and having an affair with another woman. And he only told Jenn because the other woman’s husband had found out. When we marry someone, never do we think it’s possible to hear those words.
Jenn came over to my house the next day. We sat on my couch in tears and disbelief and anger. They’d been married for 20 years. They’d been very involved in their church. Their kids were in middle school.
We talked and cried and prayed. And as Jenn got up off my couch, we didn’t know if her marriage would make it. And it did not. We didn’t know if she would make it. But she did. And as she lived into the next weeks and months and years now, I watched as she began an incredible journey through loss, through anger, through a broken heart.
And the thing that blew me away was how in the midst of the betrayal, the pain, the brokenness – God was there, walking alongside Jenn. And that didn’t mean a white-robed Jesus hanging out in the suburbs, but God was there, caring for Jenn through the community of folks in Jenn’s life.
People like Jenn’s small group. Jenn had a group of seven women from her church that gathered every other week and asked the very questions we ask here at Salt House – what is God saying to me? And what am I going to do about it? As the intimacy of the group grew, Jenn shared fully and freely with them about her husband’s affair. And that group became a safe space for Jenn to be open and angry and cry and be prayed for – and also a place where Jenn could show up for the rest of the group in what they were going through.
One thing I will always remember, was something God spoke through that group of women into Jenn’s life – and it was encouraging her not to get caught up in trash-talking her husband. Oh, she should absolutely vent, and process and find her two people close to her who she could really shake fists with. But to also take the high road. To not carry that kind of toxicity in her – especially in how she’d talk with her kids. And then on the other side of this, she would have such satisfaction, peace, gratitude, for not getting sucked into a pattern of hatred and unforgiveness and complaint. Isn’t that incredible advice? And Jenn did it. She did a good amount of appropriate venting. But she also with great intention, chose not spin on a cycle of finger-pointing and trash-talking. That means to this day, though Jenn did get divorced, many people in Jenn’s life don’t know about the affair, including her kids. Which still amazes me.
Second, another way in which God brought comfort through people was through the healing prayer team at the church where I was a pastor. There was healing prayer available on Tuesday evenings twice a month. And Jenn would come. She was paired with the same two women each time she came in, and God would bring up passages of scripture and words and images and insights for Jenn in that time, as those three women cried, listened for God, leaned into each other and prayed for healing. And God absolutely healed Jenn through that time – in so many different ways.
That’s just two of the places where God cared for Jenn through the comfort of people – so many other friends and neighbors and family rallied around her and her kids, too.
And there is so much more to Jenn’s journey, but here’s the thing about Jenn’s story that continues to profoundly impact me. This kind of betrayal and broken heart could have turned Jenn into a bitter, cynical shell – any of us who have been hurt on that level can likely identify. But Jenn, emerged wholehearted. Bruised and vulnerable – but wholehearted.
And a sign of that wholeheartedness is a document Jenn wrote. Her 2016 Christmas letter, arrived last month with a picture Jenn and her kids beaming. And it also included a list. In honor of her upcoming 50th birthday, she made a list, her list of 50 things she learned from divorce.
I am amazed at this list. Every time I read it, I get teary-eyed, I’m deeply moved. For it is such a vulnerable, sacred text. One that was birthed in such a place of suffering, which is why it is so filled with truth and beauty and hope. Jenn, as she went through the divorce, journaled, kept track of the bits of wisdom, the bible verses that spoke to her, the song lyrics she loved, snippets of books that spoke to her. And this list is just part of that. Just to give you a taste of it – It includes things like…
Isn’t that amazing? Wholehearted. Again – stop and notice this with me. Why is it that Jenn could produce this piece of beauty and vulnerability and not become a broken, cynical shell of a person?
Well it’s what N.T. Wright said about this word comfort: that God comes alongside us with words that change our mood and situation, giving us courage, new hope, new direction, new insights which will alter the way we face the next moment, the next day, the rest of our life. God did it. Through those two groups of people. From Jenn’s small group and the prayer team, who helped her hold a regular posture of opening up to what God is saying, being prayed for, cared for – I think Jenn became a sponge, soaking up what God would speak, hungry to hear God in the pain – because those around her kept saying, “Listen! Look! Where is God in this?” and so she voraciously looked for God, and had room in her spirit to receive what God did and said, even in the midst of her pain and an ugly journey.
Our God of comfort. Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles… 2 Corinthians 1:3. Jenn’s story is just one of hundreds I could tell. And I wonder the stories we could each tell. About comfort through depression, fear, infertility, loneliness, heartbreak, financial challenges, parenting challenges, abuse, grief and loss, addiction, illness, and all the changes and transitions we continue to face. When have you known comfort through the comfort of someone else? Because as Paul says so clearly here: this is who God is – our God who enters into our suffering, who alters the way we’ll face the next moment, the source of all compassion.
Or as the Message puts it: He comes alongside us when we go through hard times…2 Corinthians 1:3. So I want to name this in another way, to say: in times of suffering, God works through the Alongsiders. Yeah, it’s a word. Alongsiders are the folks who come alongside us, who show up. The ones who we can lean on. The ones who let us know deep in our bones that we are loved and not alone. Jenn’s small group were Alongsiders for here. So were her prayer partners. So were the countless friends and neighbors who showed up in even brief ways.
But it doesn’t stop there. The apostle Paul has more to say about this. Remember, there is the other half of this verse from 2 Corinthians. The full picture of Alongsiders. Paul says: God comes alongside us when we go through hard times, (and here it is!) and before you know it, he brings us alongside someone else who is going through hard times so that we can be there for that person just as God was there for us. 2 Corinthians 1:3-4 (Leave up)
We become the Alongsiders for others. Jenn, in the last year, has been walking alongside three other women facing infidelity and divorce in their marriages. And no one else is better equipped than Jenn, to be that steady presence, who knows the pain, yet who also knows the mercy – and can be an Alongsider now for someone else, just as God showed up in others for her.
And this is it, right? This is the gospel of Jesus, this is what it means to live a life of love – we let ourselves be met by comfort and mercy in our suffering, we open ourselves to the care of God made known in others, in Alongsiders – and then we become Alongsiders, too. We become people who walk alongside someone else going through hard times.
When in your life have you become someone walking alongside someone else going through a hard time? Is now one of those times? Because this is how it’s done. This is the Force of Nature that is community. This is how God shows up in our lives and world – by coming alongside us AND to walk alongside others in their hard times.
And when we become Alongsiders for others, when we show up, have you ever noticed what happens in us? …You may have picked up on it, but I had the privilege of being an Alongsider for Jenn – a part of the small army of love that God surrounded her with. And why I am speaking of it today is because through walking alongside Jenn, I have experienced the comfort of God, MY FAITH and appreciation for the profound impact God has in our lives has exponentially deepened.
I texted with Jenn this week to be sure I could share her story – and when she said yes, this is what I texted back: “For some reason your response brings tears to my eyes. I think because I continue to be amazed at the mercy of God that has fortified you through all of this – and that a journey that started in secret and in darkness now shines such Light.” As Alongsiders, it’s like we get to peek behind the curtain of what God is doing. Of God’s great love. Have you experienced that, too? We show up with others – and get the mercy, too.
I invite you to hold this all in a very personal and intimate way – paying attention to past, current and future relationships, places where God has shown up, or opportunities to receive an Alongsider or become an Alongsider.
And I want to finish our time by naming how this speaks in two specific ways to our Salt House community.
First, a look at this painting. Our own Dani Dodge painted this, live, during our Sunday morning sermons in Advent – as an experience of our journey through WONDER. And she did not paint traditional constellations, but chose images with deep meaning, that speak specifically of community. And each week we’re now revealing, what one of the constellations mean. And today, it’s the stag. Do you see it at the top? And of the stag, Dani wrote just this: Stag: take to the forest where the Stag is all strength, all majesty.
And we mention this one today, for there is something to walking into the unknown, dark forest, our times of suffering, and knowing that there is a strength and majesty that walks alongside us. I think it also brings up for me – if you’re a Harry Potter fan – Harry’s own Patronus – how the stag was this spirited protector for him. We hold the strength and majesty of the stag as a piece of this picture of God coming alongside us.
And second, finally, over January and February, we are in this series on the Force of Nature - what it means to harness the incredible power of community. And these Sunday mornings have us on the trajectory to launch our version of small groups by March 1st. And we named two weeks ago how we want these groups to be a bit different than what small groups typically are. They will embody that three kinds of relationships Jesus balanced – Jesus spent time Up (with God, remembering his identity), IN, (with his disciples, folks who knew him, where eating, talking, doing life, caring happened), and OUT (Jesus moved outside his comfort zone and social circles, into messy relationships of need). Relationships Up, IN, and Out.
And what’s different about our small groups, we’re calling them Thrive Teams, because these teams will coalesce, form, around a particular OUT focus – a focus of ministry. Like our Community Garden, our Meals Team, our Welcome Team. Which is a radical way to form groups – that they would do all of these things (Up, In and Out) and that groups of people will step up into responsibility and ownership of life here at Salt House and beyond these walls.
But today – we celebrate, name, own – that these Thrive Teams: this is where care happens. These Teams are IN. A place where we can be Alongsiders for each other, as vulnerability and trust grow over time. A place to listen, to pray, to be real with each other. These groups will be for the season of Lent, six weeks, where we’ll be reading and talking about prayer – we’ll be honest about the ways in which prayer has been hard, prayers seem to go unanswered, how prayer has changed us. And I look so forward to the stories we’ll live and be able to witness to of God’s coming alongside us through this next great adventure at Salt House, in our Thrive Teams. You with me?
Let’s pray: All praise to you, God, Father of our Master, Jesus the Messiah! Father of all mercy! God of all healing counsel! For you, God, come alongside us when we go through hard times, and before you know it, you bring us alongside someone else who is going through hard times so that we can be there for that person just as you were there for us.
For Jenn’s journey with you – we say thank you. For our own journey, when we’ve received your comfort through those walking alongside us – we say thank you. For the tender privilege of being people who walk alongside others – we say thank you. As we sing and listen and pray now, we ask, God, what are you saying to us? And what will we do about it? Thank you, God, source of all mercy and healing comfort…